Edinburgh Fringe 2022
A riotous, in-yer-face, graphically and unapologetically promiscuous gay comedy where Calvin realises big changes are needed in his life and finds a surprising partner for his transformation in a beat-up old Volkswagen he calls Wilf. Outstandingly profound and hilarious comedy drama.
Wilf is a remarkable theatrical achievement. Writer James Ley manages to create a hilarious, authentic and profound dissection of the mental health, promiscuity and loneliness challenges that some gay men face, and does it through high octane, high quality comedy, with many sobering, insightful moments. But it is not just the writing that excels. Each domain of this production is superbly judged and executed. The three actors, playing multiple characters, are inventive, vibrant, ever-changing and hyper-active with perfect comic timing and impressively choreographed movements to illustrate their storytelling to each other and the audience. Michael Dylan is particularly impressive, with brilliant comic timing, on stage for almost the whole drama, delivering the insane, slutty, manic, exuberant and unbelievably candid details of his love, sex and family life with us and many characters, even when it is wholly inappropriate to do so.
Another aspect that is refreshing and original in this production, is that the response of characters to Calvin’s over-sharing of hugely graphic details of his past sexual escapades, or of his sexual desires at that moment, even when those might involve advances to characters he has just met (e.g. a comedian, a firefighter, a vehicle rescue mechanic – all deliciously played with mischievously unexpected reactions by Neil John Gibson) is to take it in their stride, as if these explicitly erotic gay comments are perfectly normal banter or very reasonable requests. They respond with their willingness or unwillingness to accept his request as if they were being offered a coffee. This creates a world where the lifestyles of promiscuous gay men is not seen as deviant, diseased or depraved, but a known and accepted normality in modern society that can be paraded as freely as heteronormativity, without dire consequences or damning judgement. A provocatively original conceit. Many gay audience members experience such freedom of expression only when solely in the company of other gay tarts. On the night I saw it, a significant part of the audience was from this community (myself included) and many cheered and reacted audibly to these moments, clearly welcoming the possibility of such a world. The audience not from this community almost enjoyed these moments even more, relishing the taboo-breaking, shockingly candid and macho-man-predating naughtiness of it all. I’m not sure the Me Too movement would be totally happy about some of Calvin’s escapades and invitations, but, moving in those circles myself, I know they are truthful, authentic and very well drawn parts of the queer world. Whether one approves or disapproves of such lifestyles, it is theatre’s job to challenge received (or imposed) wisdoms of the time, and Calvin’s life (and his real world equivalents) are a provocation to many (most?) of heteronormative society’s parameters, which this play admirably and creatively explores through quality comedy, proudly asking, who says these are not lives worth living or portraying?
Wilf, is far more than a graphically sexual comedy romp though. It also explores, through comedy, and forces us to reflect on the phenomena of, higher levels of mental health issues and loneliness for many gay men. This is very cleverly achieved through making Calvin’s long-suffering driving instructor, Thelma (a virtuoso performance from Irene Allan), a former psychotherapist who’s a bit barking herself, so she can help him find mental health and motorway freedom.
To complete the set of superbly judged elements of this production are: the simple but clever staging that uses the insides of a car on wheels that can be moved around the stage yet allows us to see clearly what happens inside Wilf the Volkswagen Polo; the sharp intercutting between madcap and tragic moments of the story, with sudden lighting/sound changes and variations in movement tempos; and intricately judged soundscapes peppered with precisely chosen (and hilariously juxtaposed) moments from (mostly) 1980s power ballads completes a truly impressive achievement for the whole team, directed by Gareth Nicholls, who rightly drives the drama with an insanely frenetic pace that mirrors the bipolar turbulence driving Calvin.
A rare achievement for a comedy drama that shocks, impresses, entertains and opens eyes, a combination the cheering audience at the curtain call seemed to hugely welcome, myself included.